Compatibility Is a Skill

Posted on October 10th, 2019

Compatibility in relationships seems simple at first. A mild-mannered person will seek out another easygoing person. Someone who needs order will connect with another person who likes everything in its place. An early riser will want to be with another person who gets up early. That’s compatibility.

Not exactly. Compatibility turns out to be much more complicated than these examples suggest. 

For one thing, many compatible couples don’t line up in these easy ways at all. It’s not at all unusual for a reserved person to be in an enduring, satisfying relationship with a partner who is exceptionally outgoing. The same for a homebody who is married to an adventurous, out-in-the-world person. And many tidy people are in happy relationships with messy partners. 

This isn’t a case of opposites attracting each other either. Instead, the elements which are decisive for our being in a relationship with someone else aren’t about surface compatibility at all. What draws us together is a deeper congruency with each other.

Two people who marry because they both want to raise children in a supportive home and have a shared vision of what that will be, may be very different otherwise. One may be a homebody desiring a partner out in the world to support the family. The other could be an entrepreneurial adventurer wanting a home to return to, but not likely to be there much. Their interlocking interests drive the relationship, even as they have plenty of opportunities for conflict. 

Again, two people with complementary careers in the arts or athletics or the insurance business can be drawn together through their career focus. But one can pursue an expanding career while the other is unambitious. As their lives move forward and the differences in their worlds becomes more accentuated, they will be pushed to develop ways to bridge this divide. 

Does this mean that these couples and others with comparable differences are incompatible? No, it means that compatibility isn’t only based on sameness. The deeper compatibility is about just this—how comfortable two people can become with accommodating each other’s differences. These differences, which can be extreme, push partners to develop ways to accommodate and accept each other.

This necessity of dealing with differences is of course a feature of every relationship, and bridging differences takes a lot of work. Those willing and able to do this work can develop tolerant, accepting partnerships. Those who resist the work can end up with deep, festering resentments.

In some relationships, one partner bears a much larger load of this work, having to adjust their actions and handle the emotional load of their differences, while their partner remains largely oblivious. This can work, as long as the partner doing the work of adjusting is satisfied with the arrangement. That too is compatibility.

When a couple divorces because of incompatibility, this isn’t the result of the incompatibility itself, but because one or both of the partners is no longer willing to accommodate their differences. 

Posted in Marriage and Couples

Please remember, this is a blog. It is not psychotherapy or treatment of any kind and is not a substitute for the individual treatment you can get from going to see a good therapist.